Instruments Similar to Mandolin

The mandolin can be either plucked or strummed and its soundboard (the top) comes in many shapes and sizes. It may have a carved or flat top, an f-hole (F-Style), or a round or an oval-shaped sound hole (A-Style).

As for the musical application of each, Eric Aceto, a luthier who builds (and sometimes plays) all of these instruments on commission under the moniker Ithaca Stringed Instruments, feels that the mandolin is the quintessential bluegrass instrument. “But the way I really think of instruments and music nowadays is that any application is valid—you can apply any instrument to any genre or vice versa. It really just depends on the person standing behind it,” he asserts.

He says the larger-scale size of a mandocello and its bigger siblings can be traced to Irish musicians who played the Irish bouzouki or cittern, which were used in Celtic music because of their big, open, droning sounds. “They were a longer scale, not necessarily mandocello scale, but somewhere between that and a mandola. There are precedents like that for all of these instruments.”

There are two distinct families of mandolin: carved and flat. American mandolin orchestras from the turn of the century, for example, most likely used carved-top instruments. And there were full orchestras that included the whole range of instruments, from mandolin to mandobass. Then, there are the braced, flat-top mandolins, which have precedents in Italian instrument design. Again, you can find the entire range, from mandolin to mandobass.

The carved and flat families each have their own tonal characteristics too. “The flat-top has a little bit more sustain and a broader sound, more open in the bass, and not as much clarity or punch as the carved-top,” says Aceto. “The carved top is a little drier in tone and a little more punchy in the mid-range.”

If you want to check out some prime examples of contemporary mandolin players, Aceto offers Mike Marshall. “He is the guy as far as I’m concerned—and Tim O’Brien for the octave mandolin.” Examples of the mandolin in modern music include “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart, “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin, and of course, the theme fromThe Godfather movies. Joni Mitchell has been known to play mandocello and referenced buying one in “Song for Sharon.” “Then there’s that whole Celtic thing,” Aceto adds with a laugh. You can visit Eric Aceto at his

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